A Tale of Two Signs

Yesterday, I took note of two signs. At a Black Lives Matter protest in Washington Square Park (where I, like more or less all of the protesters, wore a mask and attempted to practice physical distancing), handwritten on a piece of cardboard, a demonstrator held aloft the message: “Racism is a Public Health Threat!”

At an Episcopalian church on Hudson Street (which I passed on my meandering walk home), a multicolor printed poster read: “In this house we believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, No Human Is Illegal, Science Is Real, Love Is Love.”

At the demonstration, I found strange resonances – in the coordinated standing and kneeling, the evocation of histories of martyrdom, the chanting, in unison, of the names of saints – with Roman Catholic or Russian Orthodox religious services. But what happens when different elements of our catechism come into contradiction? Do we believe that “Black Lives Matter” more than we believe “Science Is Real”? Perhaps we won’t have to answer this question as – in spite of my concerns and those of many others – it seems like the mask wearing and physical distancing may be proving effective in limiting spread of COVID-19 at mass protests. I certainly hope that’s the case.

Still, this is the risk when we engage in sloganeering and reduce our politics to a litany of reflex catchphrases. As I’ve recently referenced, there is growing evidence that mask wearing is among the most effective preventive measures we can take to slow the spread of COVID-19. Conversely, it now appears that the risk of the disease spreading via contact with contaminated surfaces is rather limited (so long as people don’t lick those surfaces or otherwise go out of their way to ignore basic hygiene best practices), and yet, for months, based on what we thought was “science,” many of us were taking extreme precautions related to potential exposure to contaminated plastic and metal surfaces, while at least until April in NYC, there was no official recommendation to wear a mask. When stakes are high and state of knowledge is limited and rapidly evolving, the stage is set for just the sort of humbling experiences to which we became, collectively, accustomed in March and April in New York, as for the embarrassing retrospective realizations to which we’re now subject.

Speaking of humility, I thought this latest episode of The Red Nation Podcast (which I’ve been loving lately) was great. The interview with Atlanta-based journalist Devyn Springer builds on the concept – introduced, I think during the Obama years, by Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report – of “the Black misleadership class” in critiquing the role played by Killer Mike, TI, and other prominent black residents of Atlanta in attempting to quell the uprising in that city after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I’ve heard and read a number of good critiques of Killer Mike’s speech (which went viral), and generally agree with them; however, I did also link to and favorably quote from that speech in my May 31st post, Rage is Not a Strategy. (In particular, I wrote: “That being said [about the problem being capitalism, white supremacy, and police brutality], I’m with Killer Mike: We shouldn’t burn our own houses/cities down, and this is “the time to plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize.””)

I’ll give myself credit that I wasn’t claiming (and never have claimed) that people shouldn’t “riot,” “loot,” or otherwise appropriate or destroy property, but only that I didn’t see these approaches as likely to lead to good outcomes or lasting change, but did see them as likely to cause lasting destruction in already divested communities. I continue to be of that opinion, and have been at pains to make a key distinction: A democratic mass movement for change is one thing, a violent revolution, quite another. I make no value judgment between the two, and recognize that there is a spectrum from fully peaceful mass demonstration, to properly violent overthrow of a government, but don’t see it as a winning approach to pretend or imagine we’re “at war” with the police when we have no plan and stand no chance of winning such a violent conflict. (This is the protest-as-dramatic-gesture framing, valorized recently in the pages of the Paris Review by Robert Jones, Jr.)

Anyway, the risk with hot takes is that you’ll get some of it wrong, and doubly so when you don’t understand the details (as I don’t understand the ins and outs of Atlanta politics), and, frankly, I find Springer’s present analysis more compelling than my own past assessment.

Finally, I wish we could retire rhetoric about protesters boldly, heroically, sacrificially “putting their health at risk” to confront injustice and demand transformation, etc. As the Czech approach to pandemic control taught us months ago: “My mask protects you; your mask protects me.” In Manhattan, I think far more people are engaged in “reopening activities” (like congregating in large numbers to drink on the street) than in “protest activities,” and my own observations suggest that, while protesters are almost uniformly wearing masks and otherwise attempting to observe best practices, street revelers largely are not. Even in our current mass uprising, a relatively small (I’d say low single-digit) percentage of the population of NYC is actively participating in street mobilizations, whereas I suspect the percentage of the population engaged in various potentially-risky reopening activities is well into the double digits. Hence, I’d say the preponderance of the risk of new epidemic spread continues to be driven by reopening, but that there remains the threat that protests can be superspreading events which explosively catalyze new outbreaks.

That being said, when you put your own health at risk, you’re always putting the health of others at risk. That’s just science, and it’s how pandemics work.

Postscript: You may have read about a renewed “epidemic” in Beijing that has led to renewed lockdown measures there. For context, New York City reported 381 new positive cases of COVID-19 yesterday, and we’re pushing ahead with our phased reopening. Beijing reported “less than 100 new cases over the weekend and is shutting down significant parts of the city.” Nationwide, in the US, the trend in new confirmed cases – excluding the significant decline in new cases in New York – has been essentially level for a month and seems to be ticking upward. The White House is trying to claim that this trend simply reflects an increase in testing, but, as David Dayen points out, “The numbers can be twisted to really show whatever you want, with little or maybe none of it being true. Combine that with a situation where states are at different points on the viral curve, and you have a recipe for statistical torture.” Meanwhile, as was both predictable and widely predicted, “Coronavirus Cases [in the US Continue to] Rise Sharply in Prisons Even as They Plateau Nationwide.”

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